Saturday, September 30, 2023

Cable Titans Clash; Goal: Lower Prices?

By Al Campbell

CAPE MAY — When two titans battle, can it benefit the little guy with lower cable TV bills?
Yes, say Verizon spokespeople.
They advocate a state law to allow the firm to lace fiber optics statewide and give custom-ers competitive cable television, Internet and phone services.
No, say Comcast counterparts.
There’s no need for a law change, the means exists now for Verizon to compete, don’t de-stroy home rule, they declare.
Thus, they set the stage for debate Nov. 29 when the Cape May County League of Mu-nicipalities convened at Congress Hall to dine and hear opposing viewpoints.
Verizon’s standard bearer was Jennifer P. Young, external affairs field director for southern New Jersey.
Comcast’s chief defender was Barry Taylor, a familiar face to elected officials in the room, who knew him from franchise sessions.
Although the issue is complicated and clouded by legal trappings, Verizon wants the state Legislature to dash a 33-year old Cable Television franchise law in order to enable it to offer cable service at a lower price, due to competition.
Comcast contends there is nothing more sacred than home rule, which Verizon’s law would, if enacted, take away, and replace by state rule. It believes there is nothing better than the present cable franchise system.
“I think it’s misleading to say any municipality is in control of franchising. We can’t make anything happen,” said Avalon Councilman Charles Covington. “Competition is something that’s needed.”
He reminded both cable advocates that municipal officials have no control, when negotiat-ing with a cable provider over price or content of channel selection.
His words summed up skepticism that seemed to run rampant from table to table as offi-cials nodded in agreement.
“The municipality is in control,” countered Taylor.
He said there are 309 cable franchises in the state, and that the utility has often helped “put up Christmas lights, trained high school students for on-air work on CN8,” as well as connected libraries and schools via cable to provide a “plethora of services.”
Cape May Point Municipal Clerk Connie Mahon asked what benefits borough residents could expect if Verizon was successful in getting the law amended.
“Basic service for under $50 with over 100 channels,” replied Young.
“When there are more providers, cost comes down. As long as there’s competition, it’s like Target and Wal-Mart,” she added.
Such competition exists, Comcast contends, and points to satellite and dish service provid-ers.
“That was done with venture capital; Verizon should do the same,” said Taylor.
“Less than $50 for basic cable? I don’t think that’s a great deal,” said Cape May Council-man William Gaffney.
He urged both providers, “I want to know what I can take back to the people of the City of Cape May.”
He said at present it costs customers about $48 for basic cable service for 23 channels.
“Who’s kidding who?” Gaffney questioned. “I’m looking out for mom and pop, but it’s a debate between corporate structures.”
Taylor urged “a level playing field. That’s something you lose and other aspects if you go statewide.”
“This is a residential issue,” responded Young.
“Residents have said 78 percent would like to see competition in the cable television market,” she added.
“You have a captive audience here,” said Gaffney.
“You’re losing sight of the consumer. Mom and pop don’t want to pay $50 for basic ca-ble,” he said.
“Premium channels are in our basic package,” said Young. “We’ll be bringing some you can’t get into lower tiers.”
In a prepared statement, Taylor said, “Verizon has not guaranteed that they will offer their product to every resident in every town. The 86 towns announced so far have a median household income that is more than $25,000 higher than the state median.”
“We do not red-line,” Young said. “We are in south Jersey, spread in broader areas. We anticipate, once the legislation is passed, that our deployment will be more aggressive,” she added.
She said 99 towns (of 526 municipalities in the state) were connected via fiber optics this year.
“Why would we give up jurisdiction over a franchise?” asked Freeholder Gerald Thorn-ton.
A Middle Township resident, Thornton said if there is a problem with cable service, “I can call the mayor, but I’d have to call the governor? That doesn’t work. I wouldn’t give any more jurisdiction to Trenton.
That comment met with “yeahs,” and mild applause.
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